WASHINGTON -- The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits fell to the lowest level in seven years last week, a sign the job market is steadily improving.

Weekly unemployment benefit applications dropped 24,000 to 297,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. That’s the fewest since May 12, 2007. The four week average, a less volatile measure, dipped 2,000 to 323,250.

Applications are a proxy for layoffs, so the decline is evidence that employers are cutting fewer jobs. Weekly applications topped 650,000 in March 2009, during the Great Recession.

Fewer people are also receiving benefits each week. The number of recipients fell to 2.67 million, the fewest since Dec. 1, 2007, when the recession began.

As applications have declined, hiring has picked up. Employers added the most jobs in 21Ž2 years in April. Job gains have averaged 214,000 in the first four months of this year, up from an average of 194,000 in 2013.

The unemployment rate fell to 6.3 percent last month, from 6.7 percent. But the drop occurred because fewer people looked for work. The government doesn’t count people as unemployed unless they are actively searching.